The wonderful work of Ambleside’s Harriet Martineau

Date: Saturday 11th November 2006

HARRIET Martineau was something of a Victorian superstar, members of a large audience in Keswick were told.

Barbara Todd, author, trained actor and accomplished lecturer who wrote the recently-published book Harriet Martineau at Ambleside, was guest speaker at a talk organised by the Friends of Keswick Museum.

Barbara lives at The Knoll, Ambleside, the house which Harriet Martineau built and where she lived until her death.

Martineau was born in Norwich in 1802 and was of Huguenot stock. Her Unitarian family ensured she was educated, but when her father died she found herself in poverty. She also became very deaf while still a teenager.

Despite this, she determined to become a writer, and at the age of 29 began to publish stories which illustrated economics, such as the Illustrations of Political Economy.

These were loved by the Victorian public, each being read by up to 100,000 people only Dickens outsold her.

Martineau spent two years in the USA, where she became committed to the abolitionist cause, but, on her return, she spent five years at Tynemouth, where she suffered terrible illness.

Recovering, apparently due to a three-month treatment which included mesmerism, she arrived in Ambleside and in 1846 work on her self-designed house on the Knoll was finished


She then involved herself in improving the lot of the poor, and worked for the repeal of the Corn Laws by writing more stories to make her point. Disturbed by tourists, she then travelled to the Middle East and, on her return, she published a book, which was written at Ambleside.

She then threw herself into improving the conditions of ordinary people in Ambleside, where there was little poverty but much squalor. She set up an association which provided housing, which still stands today.

Martineau also created and ran her own little farm, lectured to local people despite her deafness, contributed almost daily leaders to a radical journal in London (by post), and continued to be a much-visited celebrity for many years.

Her contributions to the improvement of Ambleside, national debate and reform were real and important, though she is frequently overlooked now.

Martineau’s sheer energy and degree of celebrity in Victorian England are not easy to grasp nowadays, but the speaker brought her subject to life through wonderful readings from Martineau’s own correspondence, crusty comments made by the aged Wordsworth, and the young poet James Payn’s detailed account of a meeting with her.

All of this material appears in Barbara’s book.

The next Friends of Keswick Museum talk will be about the discovery and excavation of the remarkable Viking graves at Cumwhitton on 6th December at the museum.